America is finally catching up to what Angelenos have known—and happily devoured—for years. Many of today’s food trends took root in L.A.: the devotion to local, seasonal ingredients, readily available from year-round farmers’ markets. The eschewing of stiff Continental formality. (Your waiter is as likely to crouch beside your table and ask “you guys” what’s up.) The elevation of pop comfort foods—burgers, doughnuts, tacos, pizza—to creative new forms. Not least, the long-standing, citywide affection for traditional dishes from abroad (Salvadoran pupusas, Peruvian ceviche, Vietnamese pho), the sort of cooking the rest of us are wont to call “ethnic.” With its countless immigrant subcultures—most still serving the authentic foods of their homelands—L.A. is both the least obviously and the most definitively American city. It’s also, right now, the finest place in the nation to eat.
The city’s top new restaurant may not, at first, seem very L.A.: plain, boxy interior; “Don’t Fear the Reaper” on the stereo; and a menu of the pig-happy, nose-to-tail Dude Food you’d expect in Brooklyn or Chicago. But it’s the ethereal produce, not the protein, that raises Animal (dinner for two $100) to such dizzying heights. A plate of crackly pig’s ears—punctuated by chile-garlic paste and a gooey fried egg—comes on like an amp set to 11, but is brightened and lightened by a splash of tart lime juice and fresh scallions. Crunchy nuggets of fried hominy go up with wasabi peas and popcorn in the holy trinity of salty snacks. The unexpected gem is the crudo: a recent combo of raw fluke, yuzu, serrano chile, apple, and pungent mint was no macho plate but downright girly—silky, sexy, and impeccably dressed.
This is an early-to-rise town, aptly fond of the morning meal—and while it’s hard to beat the ricotta pancakes at BLD or an egg scramble at the Nickel Diner, the 15-month-old bakery/café Huckleberry (breakfast for two $30) takes the prize for L.A.’s best breakfast. Join the perpetual line snaking through the small dining room to the bakery counter and order a plump, crisp-edged doughnut dipped in Valrhona chocolate, or the platonic ideal of egg sandwiches, with Niman Ranch bacon, cave-aged Gruyère, arugula, and tangy aioli on buttered country bread. The rest of your day will thank you.
C: Church & State
At the forefront of Downtown’s dining renaissance is the cacophonous, freewheeling bistro Church & State (dinner for two $90), in the unlikely neighborhood of Skid Row, where chef Walter Manzke—whose star shone too briefly at Bastide a few years back—conjures ur-French classics: lard-cooked frites, house-made charcuterie, and a shockingly good tarte flambé with caramelized onions, smoked bacon, and molten Gruyère.
Like vintage Buicks and aging divas, old delicatessens preserve themselves well in the southern California sunshine. Canter’s, Nate ’n Al, Greenblatt’s: all unimpeachable specimens. But the sine qua non will always be 63-year-old Langer’s (pastrami sandwich $13), source of the finest pastrami this side of the Hudson. The meat—smoky around the edges, Kobe-tender, and bursting with beefy juice—requires not a smidge of seasoning, though mustard comes standard. And the rye...Good Lord, the rye: par-baked daily at Bea’s Bakery, in Tarzana, then finished in-house till it’s plush in the center but crisp at the crust. Finally there’s the setting: brass chandeliers on a dropped-panel ceiling; a malt machine; a case of cakes the size of truck wheels. Dare you? Yes. Yes, you do.
Obsessively crafted espresso drinks—brewed in $10,000 Clover machines, bonglike siphons, or a brass-sheathed La Marzocco elegant as an old French horn—are the main perk at Lamill (breakfast for two $45). But the note-perfect coffee is equalled by the food, courtesy of Providence chef Michael Cimarusti. Don’t miss the eggs en cocotte, a burbling ramekin of velvety yolk and gently baked whites swirled around crimini and oyster mushrooms, lardons, and fines herbes.
F: Farmers’ Markets
Musky Charentais melons, candy-like persimmons, juicy citrus at any time of year, a dozen varieties of artichoke and avocado: just a few reasons why southern California is the envy of any sentient human cursed to live elsewhere. No place is better for working up an appetite—or sating one—than the Santa Monica Farmers Market (Wednesday and Saturday mornings, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.), which sells all of the above and more.
Speaking of the farmers’ market, that’s where you’ll typically find Travis Lett when he’s not behind the stoves at Gjelina (dinner for two $85), the bright new light on ever-trendy Abbot Kinney. Lett’s surfer-boy looks—perhaps you caught him in Vogue—belie his talent for the earthy, assertive, locavore cooking that makes even vegetarian dishes (wood-roasted Tahitian squash with rosemary and unfiltered olive oil; braised chickpeas with harissa) taste as hearty as the short ribs. Lett’s intensely flavorful, flame-kissed plates find an ideal setting in the dark, candlelit dining room or back courtyard.
Look, we’re happy to see brash new upstarts stake their claim: 25 Degrees, in Hollywood; the Counter, in Santa Monica; Umami Burger, on LaBrea Avenue. But honestly—we could sample L.A.’s myriad haute-burger offerings until the grass-fed cows come home and never find two better than the Double-Double at In-N-Out (multiple locations; in-n-out.com; $2.99) or the Office Burger at Father’s Office ($12.50). These are the polestars of California burgerdom: the former a well-balanced assemblage of fresh trimmings and never-frozen beef that evokes all the scarf-worthy pleasures of fast food, while utterly transcending the genre; the latter a fancily dressed interloper made with ground dry-aged chuck, topped with a smoky bacon and caramelized-onion compote, Gruyère, Maytag blue cheese, and arugula, served on a disarmingly crunchy demi-baguette—less a burger than an exceedingly rich steak sandwich. Pair it with sweet-potato fries and a glass of AleSmith Anvil ESB, one of 35-odd craft brews on tap.
Along with Donkey Kong, instant noodles, and SMS serial fiction, one of Japan’s finer inventions is the izakaya: a folksy, rowdy pub specializing in small plates evoking ofukuro no aji (the taste of mother’s cooking)—that is, if your mom made you grilled yellowtail collar, braised pork belly, or flanlike tofu topped with crunchy scallions, baby shrimp, and wispy threads of ginger. You’ll wish she had at Izayoi (snacks from $3), a convivial Little Tokyo tavern where the shochu, sake, and cold beer flow freely well into the night.
J: Jonathan Gold
The high/low priest of Southland dining. The first restaurant critic to win the Pulitzer Prize. The Lester Bangs of food writing. Jonathan Gold, stalwart reviewer for LA Weekly, makes the hungriest of us look meek and unadventurous, not to mention ineloquent. His reviews collection, Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles (LA Weekly Books), reads like a book of short stories populated by a rogue’s gallery of vivid global characters. In the end, it’s Gold’s city; we’re just the dinner guests.
K: Khua Kling
The mind-bendingly spicy cuisine of southern Thailand is at the heart of the epic 130-plus-item menu at Jitlada (lunch for two $25), a cozy Thai Town canteen whose fiery khua kling (a turmeric-charged dry curry with beef or diced pork) will cause you to see through time. Relief comes in a cooling order of khao yam, a fragrant salad of rice, lemongrass, Kaffir lime, green beans, and sour mango.
The original Lotería stand is a landmark at the Third Street Farmers’ Market; the newer Lotería Grill (lunch for two $24) serves the same note-perfect tacos in a sit-down setting. You’ll want a brace of the cochinita pibil (marinated pork, slow-roasted in a banana leaf ) and, if available, two of the phenomenal lengua de res (tender stewed beef tongue in tomatillo sauce), chased with a michelada or a bottle of Mexican Coke (made with real cane sugar, not corn syrup).
For all the salty margaritas in Los Angeles, the city’s cocktail scene is fast-improving. Restaurants like Rivera and Comme Ça have raised the bar with inventive (but never frivolous) drink menus. Alongside them has emerged a new breed of serious cocktail dens, the sort that craft their own bitters and chip their own ice. Kick or cap off your night at the rum-crazed Tar Pit, noir speakeasy The Varnish, or Copa D’Oro, where head barman/savant Vincenzo Marianella creates custom-blended drinks—you choose the base ingredients—using fresh fruits and herbs from the nearby farmers’ market.
N: Nancy Silverton
You knew the L.A.-born-and-bred Nancy Silverton could work magic with flour and an oven (she introduced artisanal sourdough to the city at La Brea Bakery and was head pastry chef at Spago before that). And you knew she had a way with melted cheese (who else could have made Campanile’s Grilled Cheese Nights the hottest ticket in town?). So when Silverton teamed up with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich to create—heaven help us all—a pizza parlor, you kind of knew it would be great. But not this great. Silverton’s astonishingly flavorful pies are worth every second of the two-hour wait at Pizzeria Mozza (dinner for two from $75)—whether it’s the squash blossom–tomato-burrata combo or the masterpiece of gooey Stracchino, shaved artichokes, olives, and lemon.
L.A.’s most artful sushi chefs tend to toil in the least-artful-looking sushi bars, usually tucked inside anonymous strip malls—to the point that sushi snobs are rightly suspicious of anyplace fancier than a Pinkberry. The two best and least assuming: Kiriko (omakase dinner for two $160), in the Little Osaka enclave off Sawtelle Boulevard, and Sushi Zo (lunch for two $120), in sleepy Cheviot Hills. Kiriko isn’t even listed in Zagat, but chef-owner Ken Namba is a master of all things salmon: he gently smokes his Vancouver Island wild king salmon over applewood and then pairs it with the collar, seared to a gorgeous, glistening gold. At Sushi Zo, an omakase lunch might start with yuzu- and spicy radish–dressed Kumamoto oysters, then proceed through sea urchin and squid “noodles” (the squid formed into perfectly al dente capellini) and slices of translucent, ruby-red Hawaiian tuna that glisten like tropical fruit.
P: Persian Food
The city nicknamed Tehrangeles is home to the largest Iranian community outside Iran. Emigrés have settled all over L.A.’s west side—a significant percentage of the students at Beverly Hills High are of Persian descent—but it’s in the cafés and kebab houses of Westwood Boulevard that the diaspora regroups. Elegant ladies and men in Bijan bond over piping-hot lavash bread and savory gheymeh bademjan (eggplant stew) at Shamshiri Grill (dinner for two $44), while the younger set noshes on baguettes piled with salad olivieh (a Persian childhood favorite of diced chicken, potato, egg, and pickles) at nearby Canary (sandwiches for two $16). On Fridays, cockle-warming abgoost is the daily special at Attari ($10.50): a bowl of hearty lamb, tomato, and bean soup accompanied by sprigs of tarragon and mint, raw onions and radish, warm barbari bread, and a tongue-tingling sour torshi (minced pickle). Sprinkle in some Farsi gossip and a melancholy ballad by Googoosh (the Persian Streisand) and any homesick exile would swear she was back in Esfahan.
Tangy-sweet quesillo (soft, unripened cow’s-milk cheese) is the key to a mouthwatering pupusa: a disk of griddled corn flatbread filled with grated cheese and your choice of green chiles, shredded pork, refried beans, squash, or artichoke-like loroco flower. Native to El Salvador—which celebrates National Pupusa Day on the second Sunday of November—but beloved throughout Central America, pupusas can be found all over L.A., though none better than at Atlacatl (pupusa $2.10). Still not sated? Come to MacArthur Park June 19 for the annual Pupusa Festival.
John Rivera Sedlar, the Santa Fe–born chef who pioneered Southwestern cuisine two decades ago, makes his long-awaited return to the kitchen at Rivera (dinner for two $85), a three-point toss from the Staples Center. The sleekly designed space—shades of 90’s dot-com boom—is a bit too faithful to Sedlar’s heyday, but the cooking is reassuringly earthy: the juicy puerco pibil (sous vide–cooked pork shoulder) is so meltingly tender you could cut it with a sheaf of lettuce, while the house-made tortillas—still warm from the griddle—have sage leaves, fresh chervil, dill, tarragon, and edible flowers pressed into their centers.
This is not about a sensible substitution for fries. This is not alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast. This is about the genre-defining Green Goddess salad at Tavern (lunch for two $40), Suzanne Goin’s breezy new restaurant-café-food shop in Brentwood, which is precisely the sort of place where unadventurous diners order salads as a main course. They don’t deserve one this good: a platter of sweet Dungeness crab, poached shrimp, avocado, and bright-green leaves of market-fresh Little Gem—a crisper, nuttier butter lettuce—with a dressing redolent of tarragon, anchovy, and chive. The virtuous never had it so good.
The Bazaar (dinner for two $100)—a $12 million collaboration at the SLS Hotel between the madcap Spanish chef José Andrés, designer Philippe Starck, and hotelier Sam Nazarian—is a restaurant in the way that Avatar is a movie: every element is engineered to dazzle and disorient, for better or for worse, starting with the wacky, 12,500-square-foot interior (which combines a patisserie, a bar, two dining rooms, a Moss design shop, and an itinerant palm reader). Then there’s the menu itself—half devoted to traditional tapas, the other to metaphysical riffs on same. Sure, some of it reads like molecular gastronomy’s greatest hits: the foie gras cotton candy, the dainty ice cream cones of caviar, the requisite spherified olives (which taste like salty tears). Yet only the jaded could deny the joy here. Behold the seared arctic char, delivered under a silver dome, which the server lifts to unleash a swirl of applewood-scented “smoke.” Or the conserva—canned daily in sardine tins, in the Spanish manner—of king crab with pungent tarragon, edible flowers, and a bracingly tart raspberry vinaigrette.
Even parochial Japanese uni lovers acknowledge Santa Barbara sea urchin as the world’s finest: a glistening jewel of briny-nutty-sweetness. At The Hungry Cat (sea urchin $18) the uni arrives fresh each morning and is served in the spiny shell, seasoned with absolutely nothing, to be scooped up and savored by some lucky soul with a spoon. Too bad about the dining room, wedged behind a Borders bookstore and possessing neither charm nor a view—but you’ll be too focused on the silken glory of the uni to notice.
Hardcore Vietnamese-food devotees will send you to the corner of Orange County known as Little Saigon—but how about a pho fix here in L.A.? Seek out Pho Café (lunch for two $35), hidden beside a Crown Escrow outlet in a derelict mini-mall. Despite the lack of signage, the long, narrow room is jammed from noon to night with Silver Lake and Echo Park hipsters, each of them nursing an outsize bowl of Vietnam’s beloved, breathtakingly fragrant noodle soup. Best option: the pho tai gan, with toothsome beef tendon and ribbons of raw sirloin that slowly cook in the clove- and cinnamon-spiced broth.
Has any chef been so equally revered and derided? Twenty-eight years on from the original Spago, Wolfgang Puck earns all the flak for overexposure—the supermarket pizzas, the airport and casino cash-ins. But the first celebrity chef can still bring the heat. His latest, Cut (dinner for two $180), is the best steak house in town on a good night, when the dry-aged rib eye is seared just-so, Richard Meier’s dining room gleams like a camel-colored Lexus, and Tom Cruise doesn’t cut you in line at the hostess stand. (Hey, it happened to us.)
X: X Marks the Spot
Whether food trucks are the new bacon or just another passing thing, no trend has inspired such exuberant devotion among L.A. food bloggers, for whom the fad is tailor-made (vendors’ locations are continuously updated via Twitter). Kogi put the food truck on the national Google map with its Korean/Filipino–inflected taco: a deeply weird conflation of corn, sesame, cabbage, and sweet-spicy pork that manages to evoke a Oaxacan mole, an Alsatian choucroute, a McDonald’s salad, and a packet of Fun Dip—in a wholly good way. Now hungry flash mobs are targeting other roving kitchens: Nom Nom (nomnomtruck.com) serves sublime banh mi and Vietnamese tacos, while Coolhaus (eatcoolhaus.com) builds ice cream sandwiches to order in architect-inspired flavors like Louis Kahntaloupe.
When you’re craving Mexican on the East Side and Lotería Grill seems too far to drive, that’s when you pull up to Yuca’s (carne asada tacos $2, three for $6), still the best taqueria in Los Feliz after 34 years, and order a brace of juicy, smoky, citrus-tinged carne asada tacos to devour on the hood of your car: Los Angeles on a paper plate.
The confoundingly underrated Ricardo Zarate—a Lima, Peru, native and former sushi chef—works wonders with Peruvian ceviche at Mo-Chica (lunch for two $40), in the Mercado La Paloma food court and craft market south of Downtown. Zarate’s ceviche del día—sea bass, yellowtail, scallop, whatever’s fresh— is marinated to order in the classic leche de tigre (lime juice spiked with ginger and yellow chiles, so refreshing you could drink a highball of the stuff) and gussied up with cubed yam, choclo corn, and/or sliced red onion. (The cheesy pan-flute soundtrack comes courtesy of the adjacent stall.) That this minor miracle chose such a humble spot to reveal itself speaks volumes about Los Angeles, a city built not on flash and hype but on countless unsung revelations.
Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.